Funding: Laser technology to unfold a protein mystery

Harry Gray, professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, has been awarded $970 000 (518 000) to study the structures, dynamics, and misfolding of malignant proteins and peptides associated with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

The structures of these proteins are not well defined and remain an anomaly, but aggregates of these proteins in the brain characterise Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. In Parkinson's disease, the fibrils are composed of alpha-synuclein protein; in Alzheimer's disease, the fibrils or plaques are composed of the beta-amyloid peptide.

Alpha-synuclein and beta-amyloid are known as disordered biopolymers. Their ill defined structure means that routine lab techniques, such as x-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, are virtually useless (see p22).

The researchers plan to use laser spectroscopic methods developed in Caltech's Beckman Institute, where Gray is founding director (see Chemistry World, August 2004, p38). Among these is an ultrafast camera that can capture the distances between atoms in disordered structures that are constantly changing.

'We're very excited about the possibility of applying our laser methods to study proteins and peptides that are involved in disease in older people,' says Gray. 'We have a chance to identify toxic species that lead to these diseases, and point the way to successful interventions.'

The project will be funded by the Ellison Medical Foundation, a nonprofit corporation established to support basic biomedical research to understand aging processes and age-related diseases and disabilities.

Bea Perks